Attack in Nice Turns Spotlight on City’s Religious Divisions

NICE, France — There is the Nice of popular imagination, the old-world resort dotted with palm trees and cafes that look out on the Mediterranean Sea, suffused with an incandescent light prized for centuries by artists.

Then there is the other Nice, one that begins to show its face a few blocks inland from the seaside Promenade des Anglais, the majestic arc of a boulevard where 84 people were killed by a 31-year-old Tunisian immigrant at the wheel of a 19-ton truck. This Nice is home to many Muslim immigrants from North Africa, including a secular middle-class that has lived alongside non-Muslim French, and is also a place that local officials estimate has sent as many as 100 young people to fight in Syria with extremists.

“It is rare that these two worlds mix with each other except at the moment of festivities or of agreement, like the gatherings on Saturday,” said Feiza Ben Mohamed of the Muslims of the South, an organization that fights radicalization, referring to the public mourning for those killed in the truck attack.

“Yet the first victim was Muslim, and a good number of the victims were Muslims,” Ms. Mohamed added. “Just yesterday I was on the promenade reflecting on what had happened, and a journalist asked me if I was there to apologize in the name of Muslims. I said to him, ‘No, I came to weep for the dead like everyone else.’”

Nice presents a many-layered reality. It is at once one of France’s most popular tourist destinations, a stone’s throw from the glamorous watering holes of the rich and famous at Cap Ferrat and Monaco, and it has one of France’s largest populations of Tunisian origin. The fact that the driver of the truck that plowed through crowds celebrating Bastille Day was a Tunisian living in Nice has turned a spotlight on the contrasts.

The Muslim community itself is layered. There is a substantial sector of well-educated and integrated North Africans, but also a population that lives in bleak housing blocks in the city’s outlying districts, where in 2013 close to 40 percent of young people were unemployed, according to the French statistics office Insee.

It is in those neighborhoods, where resentment of the affluent waterfront world runs high, that recruiters for the extremist Muslims fighting in Syria operate. One of them, Omar Diaby, a resident of Senegalese origin now believed to be living in Syria, has been linked through an associate or associates to Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the man who carried out the Bastille Day massacre, according to French news reports.

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Mr. Diaby, several Muslims with knowledge of radical circles said, targeted 13- to 15-year-olds as recruits to join the fight in Syria and was notorious for using violent radicalization videos that made killing seem like a game. The French newspaper Le Monde and other French news outlets said the authorities had found cellphone records indicating that Mr. Diaby and Mr. Lahouaiej Bouhlel knew, or at least called, some of the same people.

These different groups, Muslim and non-Muslim, lived alongside each other in relative peace for generations, but that has begun to change along with the rise of France’s far-right National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen. Nice is governed by the center-right, which includes the Republicans, but some say its leaders increasingly play the politics of division.

“There is a widening gap between the communities,” said Samih Abid, a lawyer and longtime Nice resident.

When people first meet him, Mr. Abid said, they often do not realize he is Muslim: He wears Western clothes and works primarily on business law. But when they hear his name and realize he is of Arab origin, “I can see their look change,” he said. “My problem is that there is this soft discrimination here, and I worry that it will harden now.”

After Thursday’s rampage, Mr. Abid said, he overheard people on the street disparaging Muslims who were praying before the makeshift shrines on the Promenade des Anglais. “They were saying, ‘Oh, look, they are praying here. Shame on them,’” he recalled.

As for soft discrimination, Mr. Abid said there were no mosques in Nice itself “because the mayor’s office is against them.” (There are a few small ones in the city’s outlying districts.) He acknowledged that many Muslims did not vote because they had not become citizens or because they were not well organized politically, making it easier for the government to ignore their concerns.

In the 2014 regional elections, the right-leaning parties won about the same number of votes as the National Front in the first round of voting, but took control of Nice after earning more ballots in the second round.

The city’s mayor, Philippe Pradal, has tried to quell worries on all sides. He said in an interview that Muslims needed to try harder to demonstrate their willingness to be part of Nice’s broader community, but also that the community needed to see that Islam and the values of the French republic could complement each other.

“It is possible to encounter reactions of mistrust or rejection when you face people who ostentatiously wear religious signs linked to Islam,” Mr. Pradal said, referring to women who are fully veiled and men who wear a long Islamic tunic.

“We must find the path that permits us to reconcile respect for religious values and republican values,” he said. “We can see from what happened on July 14 that the truck did not detect who was Muslim and who was not. There were victims of many nationalities and all religions.”

Boubakeur Bekri, an imam who has spoken out against radicalization, agreed that Muslim residents could do more to deter discrimination, but also said there had been a retreat into identity politics in which Muslims were often the objects of “black looks.”

“We must show that we form a bloc and that we are here to defend our country,” said Mr. Bekri, whose mosque, Al Fourkane, is in L’Ariane, a neighborhood northeast of Nice. “And we must prevent those people who plot things from a million kilometers away from programming it and launching the torpedo.

“We must do this now,” he added. “Even if in the past the Muslim community withdrew and was silent, now it must speak.”

Other Muslim residents said the most worrisome trend was how immigrants were being pushed to the city’s outskirts by gentrification.

Behind the cathedral in old Nice, there is a working-class neighborhood where the local government has been buying up buildings. Several residents said the city either kept the buildings empty or turned them into cybercafes or day care centers, rather that rent them out to Muslim shopkeepers. The city has said it wants to renew the area and increase the number of pedestrian streets.

However, on Rue Italie, the once-fierce competition among numerous halal butchers has dwindled to two.

Lotfi Brick, a halal butcher from Tunisia, said the city government was “trying to clear the Muslims from the neighborhood.”

Mr. Brick is proud that his clientele has remained diverse and loyal over the years, but he worries that could change because of gentrification — and politics.

“I have Charolais beef, the best meat in France, and reasonable prices,” he said, referring to one of France’s most celebrated breeds of cattle.

“That’s why everyone shops here: Christians, Jews, Muslims,” he said.

For at least a little longer, he said, he wants his street to remain a place where the two Nices meet.